Marshalltown, Iowa — “All foreign-made vehicles park in designated area in rear of building.” So reads the sign in front of United Auto Workers Local 893 in Marshalltown, Iowa, though nobody is bothered much about the CNN satellite truck out front, a Daimler-AG Freightliner proudly declaring itself “Powered by Mercedes-Benz,” nor about the guys doggedly and earnestly unpacking yard signs and $15 T-shirts and rolls of giveaway stickers from a newish Subaru, all that swag bearing the face and/or logo of Senator Bernie Sanders, the confessing socialist from Brooklyn representing Vermont in the Senate who is, in his half-assed and almost endearingly low-rent way, challenging Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. The bumper stickers on the mainly foreign-made cars of his followers tell the story: One of those “Peace” (not the more popular “Coexist”) slogans made of various world religious symbols, “Clean Water Is for Life!” and “The Warren Wing of the Democratic Party,” sundry half-literate denunciations of “Corporate Oligarchy” . . . “Not Just Gay — Ecstatic!” The union hall, like the strangely church-like auditorium at Drake University the night before, was chosen with calculation. Bernie — he’s “Bernie,” not Senator Sanders or Mr. Sanders or that weirdo socialist from Soviet Beninjerristan, just lovable, cuddly “Bernie,” like a grumpy Muppet who spent too much time around the Workers World party back in the day — our Bernie may not be the slickest practitioner of the black arts of electioneering, but he’s got some smart people on his small team, and they are smart enough to book him in rooms with capacities that are about 85 percent of the modest crowds they are expecting, thereby creating the illusion of overflow audiences. At subsequent events in New Hampshire and Arizona, they’ll report crowds in excess of 10,000; litigating headcounts is one of the great stupid amusing political pastimes, but, for purposes of comparison, Herself draws a crowd not much larger than Bernie’s a few days later in Des Moines.
Team Bernie is trying to make this a real race, but it isn’t — not yet, anyway. As of mid-July, Bernie was sitting at 12 percent in the Iowa polls, Herself at 54 percent. Bernie’s best showing is in New Hampshire, immediately adjacent to the state he represents, and Herself still leads him by a fat margin there. Team Bernie does all the usual tedious stuff, such as planting volunteers in the audience to shout on cue, “Yes, yes!” and the occasional Deanesque “Yeaaaaaaah!” It’s all very familiar, but there is a sense that what’s going on here isn’t really politics, but kids play-acting at politics. Sanders, as stiff a member as Congress has to offer, repeatedly refers to the audience as “brothers and sisters,” and the union bosses greet one another as “brother,” and you get the feeling that after a beer or three one of these characters is going to slip up and let out a “comrade.” If it’s anybody, it’s probably going to be the grandmotherly lady in the hammer-and-sickle T-shirt. She’s well inclined toward Bernie, she says, though she distrusts his affiliation with the Democratic party. “He’s part of . . . them,” she says, grimacing. “Yeah,” says her friend, who stops to think for a moment. “He’s a senator, right?” Aside from Grandma Stalin there, there’s not a lot of overtly Soviet iconography on display around the Bernieverse, but the word “socialism” is on a great many lips. Not Bernie’s lips, for heaven’s sake: The guy’s running for president. But Tara Monson, a young mother who has come out to the UAW hall to support her candidate, is pretty straightforward about her issues: “Socialism,” she says. “My husband’s been trying to get me to move to a socialist country for years — but now, maybe, we’ll get it here.” The socialist country she has in mind is Norway, which of course isn’t a socialist country at all: It’s an oil emirate. Monson is a classic American radical, which is to say, a wounded teenager in an adult’s body: Asked what drew her to socialism and Bernie, she says that she is “very atheist,” and that her Catholic parents were not accepting of this. She goes on to cite her “social views,” and by the time she gets around to the economic questions, she’s not Helle Thorning-Schmidt — she’s Pat Buchanan, complaining about “sending our jobs overseas.”
In the Bernieverse, there’s a whole lot of nationalism mixed up in the socialism. He is, in fact, leading a national-socialist movement, which is a queasy and uncomfortable thing to write about a man who is the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and whose family was murdered in the Holocaust. But there is no other way to characterize his views and his politics. The incessant reliance on xenophobic (and largely untrue) tropes holding that the current economic woes of the United States are the result of scheming foreigners, especially the wicked Chinese, “stealing our jobs” and victimizing his class allies is nothing more than an updated version of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s “yellow peril” rhetoric, and though the kaiser had a more poetical imagination — he said he had a vision of the Buddha riding a dragon across Europe, laying waste to all — Bernie’s take is substantially similar. He describes the normalization of trade relations with China as “catastrophic” — Sanders and Jesse Helms both voted against the Clinton-backed China-trade legislation — and heaps scorn on every other trade-liberalization pact. That economic interactions with foreigners are inherently hurtful and exploitative is central to his view of how the world works.
Sounding more than a little like Donald Trump — and that’s not mere coincidence — Bernie bellows that he remembers a time when you could walk into a department store and “buy things made in the U.S.A.” Before the “Made in China” panic, there was the “Made in Japan” panic of the 1950s and 1960s, and the products that provoked that panic naturally went on to be objects of nostalgia. Terror of the Asian Economic Superman is a staple of modern American politics: A quarter century ago, the artist Roger Handy published a book of photographs titled Made in Japan: Transistor Radios of the 1950s and 1960s. We all remember Captain Lion Mandrake’s account of being tortured in a Japanese prison-of-war camp: “I don’t think they wanted me to say anything. It was just their way of having a bit of fun, the swines. Strange thing is they make such bloody good cameras.” Like most of these advocates of “economic patriotism” (Barack Obama’s once-favored phrase) Bernie worries a great deal about trade with brown people — Asians, Latin Americans — but has never, so far as public records show, made so much as a peep about our very large trade deficit with Sweden, which as a share of bilateral trade volume is not much different from our trade deficit with China, or about the size of our trade deficit with Canada, our largest trading partner. Sanders doesn’t rail about the Canadians and Germans stealing our jobs — his ire is reserved almost exclusively for the Chinese and the Latin Americans, as when he demanded of Herself, in the words of the old protest song, “Which side are you on?” The bad guys, or American workers “seeing their jobs go to China or Mexico?”
But for the emerging national socialist, dusky people abroad are not the only problem. I speak with Bernie volunteer McKinly Springer, an earnest young man whose father worked for the UAW local hosting the rally. He’s very interested in policies that interpose the government between employers and employees — for example, mandatory paid maternity and paternity leave. He lived for a time in Germany, first studying abroad and then working for Bosch, an automotive-parts company. He is a great admirer of the German welfare state, saying: “I ask myself: Why do they have these nice things, and we can’t?” I ask him to answer his own question, and his answer is at once familiar and frightening: “Germany is very homogeneous. They have lots of white people. We’re very diverse. We have the melting pot, and that’s a big struggle.”